Jack and Bet by Sarah Butler – life, love and living in cities in a gentle novel


This is the story of four people who are changed and challenged by a marriage that has lasted for seventy years, and a London that is changing on a daily basis. As they move through this beautifully written story together, other people and the places in which they live have a huge impact. This is about the places people inhabit, the destruction of homes, and how the impact of rooms and memories affect people’s expectations. With characters of a great age there is always some sadness for past choices and limited futures, but there is still a lot here of hope, humour and opportunities. This story is written with  keen insight into the lives of those on the edge; the elderly couple, the immigrant and the much married man trying to do his best in his opinion. I found it a lovely engaging read, full of genuine feeling for an elderly couple who are close yet each with their own views. I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this gentle yet powerful book. 


“Jack Chalmers was a man of few words, married to a woman of many”. He takes a daily walk to the Elephant and Castle shopping centre, leaving his wife Bet in their “new” flat  in which they have lived for five years since their estate has been demolished. While Jack had fought against the destruction, he has been forced to accept it, like he did being in the army during the latter part of the Second World War, and other  aspects of his life which will emerge later. Bet waits at home, having difficulty with the basics of life, but set on having a party to celebrate their seventieth wedding anniversary. Jack meets a young woman, Marinela, a student from Romania who is studying photography, and she happily offers to take photographsat the party.  Meanwhile Tommy, their son, is keen to make changes in his parents’ lives. He wants them to go into a home where they could have continuous care, but they are reluctant to give up their flat and independence, even though they miss their old home with its views and memories. When Bet’s secret is revealed, Marinela has the opportunity to move from her uncomfortable room into a more spacious flat. She has a secret life working to support herself, and many memories of her family in Romania. When an old love surprises her, she has to rethink a lot about her life.


The characters that Butler has created in this contemporary novel are genuine and sincere. Jack and Bet have so many memories, and so many of them together, yet Bet in particular has a significant alternative story of choices made and roads not travelled. This is a book of kindness, but also the realities  of contemporary life in London, with all of the squeeze on housing. It is about people making the best of what life offers them, and finding true love against the odds. Although tinged with sadness, I truly enjoyed this book and would recommend it as a gentle read that reveals life in our cities with real impact. 


This book is a real celebration of the lives of older people, and is such a lovely story. The cover of the edition that I read is so clever, with lots of little hints about the story. Great design!


Beyond the Margin by Jo Jackson – two lives expose contemporary issues on the edge


This is a book of life on the edge; both in reality and in emotional terms. Joe is a man who has been about as low as possible and now lives on the edge of the land, and Nuala is always on the edge of disaster. This is a book which features the difficulties and the tremulous joys of life as it describes days when the natural world offers so much, as well as days when people are at their most challenging. This book depicts the problems and inadequacies of the child care system in contemporary Britain and its effects on children and young people. It also deals with small agricultural communities on the edge of subsidence farming. It is an undoubtedly powerful book about the intertwining of two people, two fates, two lives. Difficult subjects are tackled head on, but in a basic and brilliantly observed way. Dealing with subjects such as drug abuse, teenage pregnancy and domestic abuse, it also looks at positive views of life. It looks at how certain people can look beyond the outer appearance to see the real person beneath. This sensitive and skilfully written book is an impressive and weighty book in many ways, and I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review it. 


Two lives intersect when a man offers a lift to a teenage girl in the pouring rain. She is awkward, needy but also fiercely independent. The scene then changes to a young woman who remembers scenes from her childhood, her life in care, her dismay over her abandonment. Life has been difficult and she reacts by seeking her freedom in a new setting, away from the tearing tragedies that have beset her. 


A young man has had a hard life, a nearly impossible childhood, teenage years full of challenges. He has truly lost so much, but is haunted by a child that he cannot forget, he cannot outrun, and his guilt and pain pushes him further and further away. It is only when he gets to the edge of the land that he stops, nervous of a large animal but forced into action. His thoughtfulness and kindness give him a slight hope of a new start, but one that is tenuous, dependent on different people from any he has met before. He must confront his past life and discover a new way forward.


This is a mature book full of detail about potential problems in contemporary life. It also shows huge insight into the thought processes and instinctive reactions of a child and teenager, the sensitive approach of some adults which has an effect, the twists of fate that can change lives. The world of subsistence farming is beautifully described and sensitively worked out. This is a powerful book which has much to say about the nature of life and the pain of separation, the search for a child and the parent figure that is so necessary to a young person’s sense of self. I found this a profoundly moving book that I would recommend as a searing insight into difficult lives, combined with the genuinely positive input that can be made by relative strangers. There is hope, love and genuine concern in this book, and altogether it is an uplifting read.  

You Can Change the World by Margaret Rooke – fifty stories of teenagers who have made a difference


The title really reveals the message of this book – it features the stories of those who, as teenagers, changed some element of the world around them. Some of the contributors are still young, even as young as thirteen, whereas others are in their twenties but recall their actions. Many have started movements, some have joined and enhanced them. Some have acted out of inspiration that has come to them while living their lives, others have transformed their entire life as a result of what has happened to them. There are those who have had a challenge in their health or ability to cope with school, who have transformed their activities and world view. Some have had issues with their mental health and found strength to cope and flourish. Often a trauma such as the death of a parent or sibling has brought them low, but then given them the inspiration to develop positive schemes. The people writing pieces in this book have had to survive and then thrive, and often done so by moving others to action. They have overturned expectations, challenged the limits of their backgrounds, and really changed the circumstances for themselves and others. This book is in some ways aimed at young people, but the principles of action and positive thinking hold good for people of all ages. It has been a fascinating read, and I am glad to have had the opportunity to read and review it.


In amongst these fifty testimonies or snatches of life there are authentic and sometimes moving stories of some great transformations as well as real efforts to make a difference. There are different attitudes to social media; some have harnessed for good and to enable big social efforts, others have rejected it as distracting. Some people have discovered and worked on a talent that they have had to fight to develop such as sport, including creating football playing opportunities for those with a physical disability. Some have changed perceptions of their sexuality, choices in appearance and very identity. Others have mounted campaigns to stop the cruel treatment of animals and the exploitation of the world’s resources. 


There are five sections in this book: Demanding Change, Never Giving Up, Finding My Voice, Challenging What Others Think, Discovering My Passion, Turning My Life Around,  and Helping Others. It includes stories of feminism and the realisation that the role of girls and young women should not be limiting but empowering. There is much here about those who have raised money and crucial awareness of such diverse matters as cancer, period poverty and difference in abilities, as unexpected talents and strength are revealed. Some revelations in the book relate to the opportunities presented by the teenage stage, in having a clear view of what needs to be done. It has much to say about the elements of teenage life that are so significant, including school, friendship groups, family and community. 


This is a positive picture of being a teenager in the twenty first century around the world. It acknowledges the challenges but also celebrates the opportunities created and taken up by determined, resilient and thoughtful young people. There ought to be several copies in every school library, public library and in any other place where it can fall into the hands of young people who can be inspired. The “Tool kit” section at the back briefly gives hints and tips of how to emulate these teenagers. A fascinating book of making a difference for all, this is a worthwhile and memorable read containing vibrant and exciting voices.   


As life gets busier around here (when will I put the tree up?) I probably won’t be posting a best books of the year type post, as I have so many that I want to posts reviews about that I will be continuing to post new reviews of a variety of titles. I have some new and older books that have been begging to be celebrated in posts, so watch this space.